We the People
France Griggs Sloat
As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?
Here we talk to Paul Knitter. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Professor Emeritus, Theology
Should religion and government mix? Absolutely. Religion by its very nature is an experience that wants to speak to what’s going on in this world in order to influence it. A religious person who understands the message of Jesus or Moses or the writers of the Torah or the Holy Koran is by the very nature of his or her identity going to want to have a say in how the laws of the land are made and what they are.
In our Constitution, it’s forbidden that our government identify itself with any one religion. If a government prefers one religion, that means the forces of other religions are subordinated—they aren’t going to count—and that’s contrary to democracy. But what’s even more important, for a religion to be preferred by the government usually means that the religion ends up in the back pocket of the government, being used by the government to further the government’s policies. That’s very dangerous.
If you look at history, you can see the relationship between church and state has followed the model of the sacred canopy under which the government carries out its programs. Religion is used to give the divine seal of approval for what the government is doing. This is a fundamental abuse of religion. The fundamental role of religion is to be a voice of warning to the tendency of governments—kings, ayatollahs, presidents—to make themselves more important than God, to be corrupted by their own power. Religion is there to say, “Who do you think you are? God? Don’t you realize only God is God? And only God commands the full allegiance of the people?” The king or the president has to be criticized all the time. That’s religion’s role.
So when we have the American flag in our churches, that’s dangerous because it’s identifying your nation with your religion. We Christians who feel that the message of Jesus Christ is being used to justify policies contrary to his message have to stand up and say, “This is an abomination.” Just as Muslims are trying to say Osama Bin Laden doesn’t represent the Koran, we have to say many of our government’s policies don’t represent what we understand to be the message of Jesus.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.